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Three Questions from the Timbers’ 1-0 Win at Real Salt Lake

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Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Our house in the middle of Salt Lake.

Or at least in MLS play.

Since the Portland Timbers’ much ballyhooed struggles against RSL in 2013, Caleb Porter’s team is 3-0-1 at Rio Tinto Stadium in MLS play. That is, on the whole, quite good.

More immediately, however, the win in Sandy lifts the Timbers back into sixth place in the Western Conference and pulls Portland into a tie on points with the Seattle Sounders for fifth.

Here are three questions from the Timbers’ win on the Wasatch:

1. Why did Caleb Porter’s tactical change work?

On Wednesday Caleb Porter raised some eyebrows before the game by going to an inverted-triangle 4-3-3 with a single defensive midfielder in Diego Chara underneath two more attack-midfielders in Darlington Nagbe and Diego Valeri.

I guess you could classify me as interested, but skeptical to say the least:

Those who have seen Scarface will recall that for all its quotability and guns-blazing glory, Montana dies in that scene. And so, I expected, the Timbers might meet their end in a desperate hail of five attack-first players in the starting lineup and poor Diego Chara all alone to mind the defensive midfield.

Deploying Chara as a lone defensive midfielder, I thought, was a huge risk because (a) neither Nagbe nor Valeri are terribly inclined to chip in consistently on defense; (b) Chara’s aggressiveness can work against him when he does not have a defensive-midfield partner to cover him because his ball-winning instincts can pull him away from the backline and expose the Timbers’ centerbacks; and (c) with Javier Morales, Burrito Martinez, Joao Plata, and Sebastian Jaime, Real Salt Lake was well-equipped to create central overloads and overwhelm Chara in Zone 14.

But here’s the thing: It worked.

Why? Because Diego Chara was outstanding. In the first half Chara did essentialy a game’s worth of defensive work, almost entirely in RSL’s Zone 14.

On the whole, Chara harassed RSL in central attacking areas, repeatedly turning over the Claret-and-Cobalt and, when RSL kept the ball, often forcing them wide where the Timbers were better suited to handle any threat.

With Chara covering the formational defensive weakness, the Timbers (especially Nagbe) did a nice job of getting out in transition and catching RSL with numbers pushed forward. And although the Timbers didn’t do a great job of converting those situations into goals - surprise, surprise - the Timbers’ ability in transition and the higher press from Portland’s five attacking players kept RSL out of synch and away from the Timbers’ goal.

2. But did this win put to bed any of the concerns we had coming into the game?

Not really.

Don’t get me wrong. The Timbers didn’t play poorly on Wednesday evening. And the points are more than welcome. On the whole, a win wasn’t an unjust result for a Timbers team that could be fairly described as the better team until RSL started desperately pushing numbers in search of their needed equalizer and winner.

But therein lies the rub: With RSL pushing numbers forward the Timbers had plenty of opportunities to break. And despite getting out in the open field a number of times, the Timbers created nothing significant from it.

Moreover, this wasn’t just a second-half problem. As noted, despite cracking open RSL’s midfield repeatedly in the first half, the Timbers struggled to create and put away genuine chances.

So Wednesday did little to answer questions about the Timbers’ ability to create big chances and finish them.

The points, however, are vital. And the win - although delivered by way of a penalty that probably should have been a foul (and red card) issued just outside the box - is crucial. But it’s hard to say Wednesday provided any answer - or even a countervailing data point - to questions about the Timbers’ attack.

3. So the Timbers are back in sixth. Can they aspire to more?

It’s going to be difficult.

Although the Timbers are currently tied for fifth on points with Seattle, barring a miracle Portland’s trip to the Stub Hub Center on Sunday means the Timbers essentially only have three points left on the table.

Sporting Kansas City, who sits in fourth one point ahead of the Timbers, have three winnable games remaining. The Sounders similarly have two winnable games ahead of them, with a weekend trip to an all-but-eliminated Houston Dynamo and a final-weekend home fixture against will-be-eliminated RSL presenting only modest challenges to Sigi Schmid’s side.

So, although the Timbers’ win on Wednesday puts them into a strong position to qualify for the playoffs, the chances of getting out of sixth position. And, as noted, sixth place really isn’t a great playoff starting point, with the reward being a do-or-die away game at what is looking likeliest to be Kansas City.